Obviously, our current COVID-19 crisis brings up a lot of anxiety, even PTSD, for folks living with HIV/AIDS, especially longtime survivors. All the talk of who’s spreading it and how, the daily nationwide sickness and death toll, the dread that oneself or loved ones will suddenly take a turn for the worse, and the frequent examples of government incompetence and apathy amid a crisis—let’s face it, it’s all a little too reminiscent of a certain epidemic many of us remember too well from the 1980s and 1990s.
But the flip side of all that devastation and grief is resilience and grace, and that’s what so many folks living with HIV/AIDS—nationwide and globally—are exhibiting as we hunker down through this pandemic of indefinite length and scope. TheBody spent the past few days talking to 10 people living with HIV nationwide to find out how they’re affected and why they’re scared—but also how they’re coping, adapting, and staying connected in these challenging (and isolating) times. Send your own COVID-19 stories to firstname.lastname@example.org. We want to stay on top of how the community is faring.
Today, we check in with Little Rock, Arkansas, LGBTQ drop-in center director Cornelius Mabin, who’s falling back on skills from his old life as a chef—and occasionally ferrying clients to appointments in his minivan as a last resort. He’s drawing on his AIDS-era survival skills as he deals with a flurry of Zoom meetings—and even pushes back on local misinformation equating HIV to the COVID-19 virus.
Cornelius Mabin, founder and CEO of Arkansas RAPPS (LGBTQ of color community center), 58
Little Rock, AR
Diagnosed with HIV in 1987
Tim Murphy: How have you been affected by the COVID-19 crisis?
Cornelius Mabin: I guess emotionally. I’ve tried to be strong for others and to keep people grounded. There’s no need to panic. I’ve tried to stay focused. I’ve lived through quite a bit, even though this is unprecedented. But I believe we can make it through this, based on personal habit changes and following recommendations. I have a few clients who are a little bit rattled, but I’m trying to be a calming force with them. One lost their job, so I coached them through the unemployment claims process, including telling them to hold on the line and not hang up. I’ve been letting people know they have to file their taxes.
Our LGBTQ center was a drop-in space, but because of social distancing, that could not continue. So now I do things virtually through Facebook and FaceTime. I had a couple clients already scheduled whose appointments I fulfilled in-person, driving them in my car to their appointments. One of them had four kids draped in bandanas. I have a minivan, so I made sure everyone sat in the rear, far behind me.
TM: How are you getting social interaction and staying connected?
CM: Again, when all this started, everything shifted to virtual. Travel and conferences were canceled. I’ve never done so many Zoom meetings! Just before this, I was on a Zoom meeting for our local HIV planning group. A lot of clients have been reaching me over Facebook IM or phone calls. I didn’t know you could do phone calls on Facebook!
TM: How are you getting exercise?
CM: That’s not something I normally do but probably should do more. I do try to move about the office a bit more.
TM: What kinds of foods are you eating?
CM: I try to eat healthy, but some days I’ll splurge and have those French fries. I’m not vegan but I try to eat lots of vegetables. It depends on my day. Evenings, I’ll cook for me and my partner. Tonight we’re going to have a pork roast with rice and vegetables. I was a chef in my previous career.
TM: What books, TV shows, music, etc. have been getting you through?
CM: I have really been bingeing on Amazon Prime, such as that over-the-top Hunters about the Nazis in the U.S. being hunted down by a group of Nazi hunters. I watched every episode in one day. I could not stop watching! Also Amazon’s Blow the Man Down, a crazy story about two young girls who commit murder.
TM: How scared are you, on a scale of one to 10? What specifically are you scared about?
CM: Probably a five. I’m scared about the miscommunication. Like this week, should we wear masks or not? And people repeating things they’ve heard that aren’t quite factual. Being in nonprofit, I deal in evidence-based information, so I’m always afraid when I see individuals getting poor information. A cleaning company here was advertising that they had a spray that killed both the HIV and the COVID virus!
TM: Are you serious? Did they know HIV doesn’t really exist outside the body?
CM: I don’t think so. I think it was dangerous that they linked the two together. I told them that equating the two was dangerous.
TM: What is giving you hope and strength?
CM: Because I lived through so much of the AIDS era, I realized then that we had to stay connected, vigilant, and focused amid bad things. So looking back on those times, I’m gonna stand firm. I came through that, I believe I can come through this. It’s grim to know that some people aren’t going to make it, but we must persevere.